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Tampa Bay Lightning player grades: Defender grades by the Raw Charge community

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The Lightning carried nine defenders last year. That won’t continue.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Washington Capitals - Game Three Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2017-2018 season is officially over. While they fell short of winning a championship, they were still among the best teams in the NHL. Now that we’ve had a few weeks to process all that happened, we’re going to look at how each player on the roster performed this season.

To do this, we’re going to assign each player a school-style grade on the A to F scale. But we’re not doing this alone. We reached out to you, the readers, to help us with our grading. This is the third in a series of articles where we will unveil the results of your grades, our staff grades, and a combined grade for the 25 players who played a significant number of minutes this year and were not traded or released.

The player grade series will be four parts and will include the top six forwards, bottom seven forwards, defense, and goaltenders in separate articles. The articles on the top six and bottom seven forwards came out last week. This is the third installment and the final part will run on Wednesday.

Grades

The first chart shows the grades from the readers, the writers, and the combined grade for each player. This chart shows less differences between reader and writer grades than in the previous installment. On defense, it looks like we’re all pretty much in agreement. No player has a major difference between the readers and writers, which is more of a consensus than we saw with the forwards.

What stands out most to me is that the team appears to have five reasonable options on defense and four players who probably shouldn’t be playing regular minutes on a good team. The Lightning don’t have any players in Syracuse ready to make the jump to the NHL next season, so more than likely one of Andrej Sustr, Braydon Coburn, Slater Koekkoek, or Jake Dotchin will have to fill the sixth defensive spot.

The next chart shows a breakdown of how the readers voted for each of the defenders. The consensus on Hedman is noteworthy. Nearly everyone graded him in the A range. He was also clearly ahead of the rest of the defense in terms of reader grades.

The rest of the players received a wider distribution of grades. Jake Dotchin’s grades were all over the place, which makes sense considering how few minutes he got this season. Andrej Sustr got an almost equal number of Cs, Ds, and Fs. That reflects the frustration many fans felt with him all season.

Stats and Analysis

Having looked at the subjective grading of our community (readers and writers) here at Raw Charge, let’s now delve into the objective stats to try to understand what might be driving the perceptions we see above. All data below is via Corsica except for the estimated passing data, which is calculated via the methodology here.

If you’re a frequent reader here, you’ll recognize this chart. It shows how each player performed in some key metrics. On this chart, blue is good and orange is bad relative to the rest of the league. Sustr, Koekkoek, and Dotchin are included here despite not meeting the ice time requirements. Because of the small sample size for those three players, you should put a bit less faith in the importance of their numbers.

The Regulars

We’ll start with players who met the ice time requirements. Of those, let’s begin with the positives. Victor Hedman received the only A grade of any defender, and that’s how it should be. He continues to be the leader of the Bolts’ blue line in every way. He plays the most minutes. He plays in all situations. He gets the least special treatment from coaches.

For most of this season, the Lightning coaching staff relied on Hedman to carry a weaker defensive partner. His four most common defensive partners in order were Dotchin, Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi, and Sustr. Aside from Stralman, all of those pairings represent Hedman having to help minimize the negative impact of a weaker player.

Despite consistently playing with lesser players, Hedman put up good enough numbers to earn a Norris Trophy nomination as one of the best defenders in the league. He scored well. He drove play both in terms of shots and expected goals. He is a true number-one defender and one of the main reasons this team made the Eastern Conference Final.

After Hedman, evaluating the defense gets more complicated. Everyone else has flaws and concerns heading into next season.

Anton Stralman had a bit of a bounce back year after struggling in 2016-2017. His scoring continued to drop, falling to just 18 points this season, but that’s largely due to no longer being on the power play. His 5v5 scoring is only down a handful of points from his peak. Encouragingly, he drove play in a positive direction in both shots and expected goals.

He spent much of the year paired with Mikhail Sergachev, which proved to be beneficial to both players. Playing with Sergachev allowed Stralman to focus on his defensive game much the way he does when he’s paired with Hedman. For Sergachev, playing with and being mentored by a reliable player like Stralman is an ideal way for a rookie to acclimate to the league.

Speaking of Sergachev, he was phenomenal. The coaches limited his role giving him relatively few minutes at 5v5 and ensuring as many of those minutes as possible were in the offensive zone. He also ran the point on the second power play unit.

Given the constraints of his usage, he had as good of a season as could be expected of someone his age. He had the highest game score per 60 of any defender on the Lightning and, even considering his usage, he showed signs of being a positive play driver.

A big part of the Lightning’s success next season depends on the development of Sergachev. The team needs him to be in a top four role next year. For that to happen, the coaches need to trust him to play those minutes. He showed he’s ready for more this season so I expect to see him in a bigger role and trusted with more responsibility next season.

In the playoffs, the Lightning relied on their big three of Hedman, Stralman, and Ryan McDonagh. Evaluating McDonagh is difficult. He joined the Lightning at the trade deadline but was injured and didn’t get much opportunity to adjust to being in Tampa before the playoffs started.

He paired with Girardi initially and that went about as well as it went when they were both in New York, which is not very well at all. The coaches eventually moved him to playing with Stralman and the two served as the shutdown pair in the playoffs. They didn’t put up particularly good results, but matchups are accentuated in the playoffs and that can distort player results in small samples.

The Lightning need McDonagh to play like a number two or three defender to justify the price they paid for him. A first-round pick, second-round pick, two prospects, and an NHL players is a steep price to pay for McDonagh and J.T. Miller. Based on the information available at the time, the deal made sense. But if McDonagh doesn’t find more consistency and return to form with a strong season in 2018-2019, that trade might start to seem questionable in hindsight.

The last two players in the top six are similar in many ways. Braydon Coburn and Dan Girardi are both approaching the end of their NHL careers. Both were serviceable in limited roles but struggled when asked to play up the lineup. Neither had a positive impact on their teammates in terms of shots or expected goals.

Realistically, having both of them playing every day next year is not ideal. The front office should be looking for ways to minimize the role of one or both heading into next season. Both are under contract for one more year. Girardi has a no trade clause and Coburn has a partial one, so the latter is the more likely of the two to be moved this summer.

The Not-So-Regulars

If we’re looking for names that might be able to step up and claim a roster spot from a player like Coburn, the Lightning have three young(ish) defenders they can consider. Of the trio of Sustr, Koekkoek, and Dotchin, Sustr is the least likely to be back next year. He’s an unrestricted free agent and given that he didn’t play much down the stretch, he’ll probably be looking for a new team where he can get more playing time.

In fairness to Sustr, he put up decent numbers in his limited opportunities this year. I would argue he outplayed Koekkoek. But considering the contract situation and the lack of playing time, I think it’s a longshot he returns.

That leaves Koekkoek and Dotchin. Koekkoek is a restricted free agent and Dotchin is under contract for one more year. Koekkoek did not play well this year. His chart above is almost all orange aside from scoring a few goals in limited minutes. While he seemed to have top four potential early in his career, that potential hasn’t been realized.

The blame for that probably goes to multiple places. Some should go to the team for their development of him. Some should go to the injuries that slowed him in junior and the AHL. Some should go to Koekkoek himself for not making the most of his limited opportunities.

At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Koekkoek traded for a low round draft pick, much the way Derrick Pouliot went to Vancouver for a fourth rounder and an AHL contract. It’s possible the Lightning give him another chance in training camp, but unless the team sees a path for him to regular minutes, it might make sense for all involved to find him a new home.

Last in our trio of defenders who spent lots of time in the press box this year is Jake Dotchin. This one is a bit of a mystery. He’s not a high-skill player, but he’s looked like an NHL player in the chances he’s had. He had better numbers than Sustr and Koekkoek, and better numbers than Coburn.

His year started poorly when he was suspended in training camp. It never got on track after he came back. It could be that the team didn’t think he was a fit with Coburn and Girardi already in the lineup every night. It could also be that something more than his on-ice results factored into his usage. Whatever the case, I’m interested to see how the team handles him this fall and if he can earn his way back into the lineup.

Conclusion

The blue line was the weakness of the team this year. Whether that’s the case next year depends heavily on how McDonagh adjusts to a full season in Tampa and how Sergachev develops in his second season. The Lightning have the ingredients to turn their blue line into a strength, but it requires the pieces to come together in the right way.

I don’t expect all nine of these players to be back next year. Sustr and Coburn seem like the most likely find new teams this summer, but either Koekkoek or Dotchin could also be moved depending on the trade market.

A top four of Hedman, Stralman, McDonagh, and Sergchev should be enough to win lots of hockey games in 2018-2019. The question will be where Girardi slots into the lineup and who the sixth member of the defense will be. I suspect we won’t know that until at least training camp. I won’t be surprised if this is a discussion that stretches into the season and maybe all the way to the 2019 trade deadline.